The Nevada Independent

Your state. Your news. Your voice.

The Nevada Independent

Is justice for sale in Washoe County?

Orrin J. H. Johnson
Orrin J. H. Johnson

This last week, one of my clients finally got his day in court. He had pled not guilty in January and invoked his right to a speedy trial, which was set for March. Less than two weeks before his case was set to be judged by a jury of his peers, the courthouse closed. 

He was not alone – dozens of Washoe County Jail inmates have tried to demand this fundamental right, but have languished in jail while our overreaction to COVID-19 has undermined the most basic foundations of the institutions necessary to maintain a free society. 

My case last week was the third jury trial since they resumed last month. The preparation had been intense and impressive, not just from the extraordinary presiding judge, Judge Kathleen Drakulich, but from the entirety of the Second Judicial District Court bench, court staff, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO deputies staff the court as bailiffs). As a result, my client was able to get his day in court, and the wheels of justice rolled forward, as they always must if we are to retain our freedoms and liberties.

Among the judges most involved with all of the planning for resuming was Elliott Sattler, who is the only general jurisdiction District Court judge to face a challenger in Washoe County this cycle. This was somewhat of a surprise, given the fact that Judge Sattler is the highest rated general jurisdiction District Court judge in the courthouse, according to the Washoe County Bar Association’s bi-annual survey of lawyers who appear in front of those judges. His work ethic, preparation, and legal knowledge are legendary, but he also takes the time (and always has, even when he was practicing law as a prosecutor) to mentor and train younger lawyers. 

I was recently at the home of one of my colleagues, another former public defender who let’s just say probably will not be voting for many of the same people I will be. But both of us have an Elliott Sattler sign in our yards, because we know the people of Washoe County – including everyone involved in the criminal justice system – live in a more just society because Sattler sits on the bench.

Nevertheless, being a good judge means sometimes you piss people off, because true “equal justice under the law” doesn’t take into consideration wealth and power. The problem is that when we elect judges, we give wealth and power too much weight on Lady Justice’s scales.

About a year ago, I got a call from someone who was asking (somewhat mysteriously) about my interest in running to be a judge, with an implication that if I was interested, the campaign would be fully funded. It also was clear from that conversation that the mysterious would-be-benefactor was interested in targeting a sitting judge, although it wasn’t until a month or so later that it was made clear to me who that judge was – Judge Sattler. Not desiring to run against both a great judge (and a personal friend and mentor to me, in full candor), I demurred. I later learned that at least half a dozen of my other colleagues had also been contacted to run against Judge Sattler, with all of them refusing until the mystery money man finally got his candidate at the eleventh hour.

Now, I don’t particularly like that we elect judges in head-to-head political campaigns (and no, there is no such thing as a non-political effort to garner votes for someone, even in a non-partisan race). But since that’s our system, I don’t have a problem with a citizen or group of citizens getting together and challenging an incumbent. Such challenges were designed to be a check on bad judges, who from time to time are able to get themselves elected in the first place. 

But it requires tremendous diligence on the part of the voting public to ensure that what should be a check on bad judges doesn’t turn into the ability for rich people to buy judicial seats to ensure their court battles go their way (or to punish more independently-minded jurists). The canons of judicial ethics include special rules which severely limit what can be said during a judicial race (which I think is a mistake – if we’re going to have an election, go whole hog with it and let the people decide). These restrictions, along with a judge’s day-to-day duties and performance being invisible to most members of the general public, can turn such races into pure name-recognition/popularity contests, which obviously makes the ability to buy billboards or internet ads a too-important factor.

Judge Sattler’s challenger, Kathleen Sigurdson, no doubt received a similar call to the one I got last year. Her funding comes almost entirely from a single source, a California billionaire who bought a casino and thought that entitled him to buy justice, too. I don’t know her, but no doubt plenty of her colleagues do – and to date, only four (four!) other lawyers have been willing to come out and endorse her, compared to the endless list from across political and legal spectrums supporting Judge Sattler. Not only did I endorse Judge Sattler months ago, but I contributed $700 to his campaign. 

And when you compare their responses to general questions about their judicial approaches, the contrast between the two gets even more stark. (Sigurdson answers basic questions about why she’s running or questions of criminal justice as if she’s never actually considered them before, which is flat out bizarre.)  

What is most troubling is that Sigurdson’s patron is so dishonest about the patronage. Grand Sierra Resort owner Alex Meruelo, through spokesman Andrew Diss, claimed they didn’t meet or decide to fund Sigurdson until after she filed, which the calls I and my colleagues received demonstrate to be a flat-out lie. I had been asked to keep that conversation private, which I was happy to do until that silence risked being part of deceiving the public about who was trying to buy “justice,” and why

And as to Sigurdson herself? Well, I have no intention of voting for a judge so obviously for sale, and neither should any of you.

Without the competent, hard-working, and independently-minded judges in the Second Judicial District Court, my client last week either wouldn’t have had his day in court at all, or couldn’t have counted upon justice being served when that day arrived. Most of our fine sitting judges were either originally appointed, or made their initial run without opposition because they had already received such a broad base of support from colleagues who respected them that any challenge would have been futile.

It is fortunate that in this case, at least, this effort to simply buy a judgeship (and worse, to punish a phenomenal sitting judge for daring to scrupulously apply the law equally to all) is sooooo amateurishly transparent. Not all such efforts are or will be in the future, which is why we should either appoint all of our judges, and/or conduct retention elections only for judges as a public check on the system. 

In the meantime, however, we must be vigilant in these types of races, looking beyond mere name-recognition to ensure our system of justice for all remains in competent, independent hands. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].


Featured Videos

7455 Arroyo Crossing Pkwy Suite 220 Las Vegas, NV 89113
Privacy PolicyRSSContactNewslettersSupport our Work
The Nevada Independent is a project of: Nevada News Bureau, Inc. | Federal Tax ID 27-3192716